Visual Information and Apollo 13

Posted on Thu, April 16, 2020

Just hours from returning to Earth, after a nearly catastrophic journey to the Moon and back, Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise got their first real look at the damage to their spacecraft when they jettisoned their service module (SM). With a whole panel blown off the side of the service module , fears of additional damage that could impact landing added to worries from the past four days of a potential for disaster. The observations of the crew during these moments, heard in their transmission back to Earth, recorders in the spacecraft, and post-flight debriefings, became intense reminders of how close they came to disaster. But photographs captured when the SM spun away from them as they made preparations for atmospheric reentry are perhaps even more powerful and almost sublime reminders of the risks astronauts take in space.

service module

Magnification of the service module gave engineers their only look at the damage to Apollo 13, April 17, 1970, AS13-58-8459 (NASA)

An electrical short in an oxygen tank and subsequent explosion and loss of electrical power just 55 hours into their mission sent the Apollo 13 astronauts from a safe landing in the Fra Mauro highlands of the Moon to struggling with their crippled spacecraft for another four days. After the incident, it took almost three and a half more days until the crew could see the damage done. On the approach to Earth, just hours before their prospective splashdown, the crew jettisoned their SM and took a series of 28 photographs on Magazine N. Those photos, all from a significant distance but at a very high resolution, were then returned to Earth and analyzed. Since the damage could not be inspected by engineers (the SM burned up in the atmosphere), the photos were crucial evidence to be paired with telemetry data to determine the root cause of the electrical short and explosion.

This wasn’t the visual information Apollo 13 crewmembers hoped to bring home. Of special importance to all Apollo missions were singular opportunities to photograph phenomena from the unique perspective of astronauts traveling through translunar space. Preparations for the Apollo 13 mission included astronomical training to aid in photographing and describing Comet Bennett from the crew’s unique point of view. Also on board was a special mapping camera to be mounted in the window of the spacecraft for mapping the lunar surface, a predecessor to later mapping cameras stationed in the SM and operated remotely by the command module pilot. With a crisis on their hands, Lovell, Swigert, and Haise had no time for such photographic work that could have informed both the scientific and mission planning communities back at NASA.


The Hycon lunar topographic camera was intended for lunar mapping during Apollo 13, AS13-282A-70HC-251

Because of the incident, like the Apollo 1 fire three years prior, NASA was required to report to Congress about the Apollo 13 mission failure. NASA’s use of images and their appearance in printed hearing records varied by the setting. The Senate record includes a handful of drawings that were used by NASA, but no photographs of parts or other engineering information specific to the accident. On the other hand, the House hearings were extensive and included a copy of the accident review board’s report. Within the live House hearings, NASA representatives showed slides of the equipment in question as photographed prior to the flight. Astronaut photographs served as supporting evidence within the context of the review board’s supplemental material as an appendix in the final record of the hearings. Perhaps ironically, photography of the actual failed technologies played almost no role in explaining the problem to Congress for this "successful failure," though the event itself is perhaps one of the program’s most well-known now thanks to Hollywood’s depiction of the mission.

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